The line for COVID-19 tests wraps around the block at the International School of Louisiana, where a negative test is required to return to school after Hurricane Ida. (Photo submitted by Caitrin Gladow)

As New Orleans and the nation face a surge in COVID-19 cases from the highly contagious omicron variant, public health officials are asking people to be mindful of the risk of catching and spreading the virus over the holidays and Louisiana Department of Health State Epidemiologist Theresa Sokol recommends students get tested before returning to school in the new year.

On a health department press call Monday, officials implored residents to get vaccinated, tested, and consider outdoor celebrations — with warmer weather expected this weekend — as case counts continue to rise and omicron has become the dominant strain in the U.S.

“Regardless of vaccination status — we want people to get tested multiple times,” Sokol said Monday. 

“Our entire state is at one of the two highest levels of transmission,” Sokol said. 

Case counts and positivity rates have continued to increase in recent days as well, including in schools, state data shows.

The announcement follows the NOLA Public Schools district’s recently approved request to add the COVID-19 vaccine to its required shots for enrollment for all children over the age of five. On the same day the district announced that requirement, which goes into effect Feb. 1, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced she would require children ages five and older to show proof of partial vaccination or a negative test to enter restaurants and other businesses beginning Jan. 3 and proof of full vaccination by Feb. 1. 

The New Orleans school district’s vaccine mandate begins months before a statewide school vaccine mandate requested by Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to take effect, at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. The statewide requirement, which is facing a legal challenge from state Attorney General Jeff Landry, will only apply to age groups that have been given full FDA approval to receive a vaccine, currently those 16 and over. 

Louisiana offers broad exemptions for parents who do not wish to vaccinate their children. Along with opt-outs for medical or religious reasons, parents can avoid the requirement by citing personal philosophical beliefs. 

In a Wednesday interview, Tulane University epidemiologist Dr. Susan Hassig said the city and district’s new policies will help curb the spread of the virus but also expressed concern about the holidays.

As people searched for at-home COVID tests and waited in long lines for city-administered ones amid the surge, city officials announced they would give away at-home rapid tests to New Orleans residents. They announced tests would be available at four fire stations on Dec. 22 and 23 and at additional locations next week. 

“In anticipation of a surge in Omicron cases during this busy holiday season, the City of New Orleans Health Department (NOHD), along with the help of the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD) will give away free at-home COVID-19 tests to anyone who needs them,” a city press release said. “According to the CDC, the highly transmissible Omicron variant is now the dominant strain in the U.S., making up more than 73% of new infections, almost a six-fold increase compared to the week before.”

“Omicron is here and spreading rapidly,” city Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno was quoted as saying in the press release. “The best defenses against severe disease are full vaccination with a booster, masking indoors, and regular testing. Please test before your holiday gathering to keep your loved ones safe and healthy.”

The city giveaway sites, however, ran out of less than two hours into the new program. Officials said they are working to get more tests available at the sites. 

‘Test before you go somewhere’

On the Monday LDH call, Our Lady of the Lake hospital’s Chief Medical Officer and infectious disease expert Dr. Catherine O’Neal said her hospital had transitioned anyone who could work remotely back to working from home. 

“We know omicron is more transmissible — we’ve had trouble keeping our surges down in the past with variants that weren’t this transmissible,” O’Neal said. 

O’Neal said her family planned to gather with family for the holiday but that they would be testing prior to meeting and looking for opportunities to be outside. She noted the forecast for Christmas Day was warm and encouraged families to gather outside if they plan to get together. 

“Our playbook for our house is to test before you go somewhere,” she said. “Test when you get back.”

“When we look at masking it’s really akin to being a good neighbor,” she said. 

Asked about schools, many of which are on a two-week break for the holidays, Sokol said masking should continue upon return and encouraged testing what she called “entry testing” before students returned. Many city schools required a negative test to return to the classroom after Hurricane Ida.

District officials have said the vaccine requirement is intended to help combat the omicron surge. They did not respond to additional questions this week about any additional measures they may take or potential changes in operations. 

On Tuesday, the NOLA Public Schools district encouraged students on social media to continue to get tested through the winter break. 

“My sense is that the district has done really a pretty good job of implementing a multilayered strategy to deal with covid in schools,” Hassig said. “My gut instinct is to maybe do the first two weeks remote to deal with omicron because it’s so transmissible.”

If students do return Jan. 3 as planned, Hassig suggests the district increase testing. 

“I’m hoping they would do some more intense testing the first week or so,” she said. “Especially with kids having been out and with family and sometimes without knowing vaccination status.”

In Washington D.C., the city’s public schools will give out rapid at-home tests on Jan. 3 and 4 for students. 

Hassig said that while that was a good idea, she’d have some concern that at-home test results wouldn’t be reported to health authorities, which use testing data to gauge the severity of community spread and determine mitigation measures. 

“There’s that validation, verification piece. I’d almost rather see them set up a time at the school where they’d just run a bunch of kids through the testing process on those two days. And then send the rapid tests home [for anyone showing symptoms],” she said. “To me that would seem a better use of the at home testing piece. There are some efficiencies of scale and you have a sense of where the infection might be in your community if you’re actually performing the tests.”

She praised the NOLA Public Schools district for maintaining an indoor mask mandate throughout the fall — even as many other school districts across the state opted out — and for adding the vaccine to its requirements.

“As we’ve been saying since the beginning of the pandemic — none of these methods are perfect but together they can be incredibly beneficial and can go a long way to slowing down if not stopping spread,” she said. 

Hassig added that with Mardi Gras approaching, she hoped people would exercise caution rather than risk the cancellations of parades and parties the city saw in 2021. 

“I’m hoping the desire for Mardi Gras may help people engage a little more forcefully in all the areas of protection that need to happen.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...